As we march the last steps of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs to reach Saturday's crowning MLS Cup match (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMás, TUDN) between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC, a bittersweet feeling has come over this designated prognosticator: I'm sad there's only one game left to predict for the season but delighted there's only one more prediction to make until next year.
Yeah, like Major League Soccer's games, calling its winners can be rough. I missed on both Conference Finals, though to be fair my early Philly pick would have changed the second their MLS Heath and Safety protocol nightmare dropped... but whatever.
Even with that asterisk-ed loss, I stand 8-6 for the playoffs, which means there will definitely be a winning prediction record when the title bout's final bell rings on Saturday afternoon (and isn't that what Christmas is really about?).
Much of the pre-game talk in the last round was about who was missing. The title match angle is much more about who's returning. Portland get Dairon Asprilla back from suspension, and hey, maybe Sebastian Blanco even recovers enough in time to make a significant appearance. Meanwhile, the Bronx bombers will have attack engine Valentin Castellanos back in his rangy No. 9 role.
We also have some classic diametric opposition storylines. Portland will duel for MLS Cup for the third time since 2015, while NYCFC only managed a solitary postseason round advancement in that same time span. The visitors are a team that generally prefers to dictate matches by hogging the ball, while the Timbers were last in the league in possession percentage and obviously fine with that.
The this vs. that angle that most interests me might be the one that decides this contest. NYCFC have allowed over 1.2 xG just once during their current 5W-0L-3D run. The Timbers haven't accumulated below that xG number in a single match during the six-game win streak that has led them to hosting MLS Cup 2021. It's an NYCFC team that's only allowed multiple goals once since September (Conference Semifinal vs. New England), trying to invade the castle of a team averaging over two goals scored (2.2 to be exact) over their last dozen games.
On one hand, I can't see NYCFC keeping pace if the Timbers run wild. On the other hand, I can totally see them patiently looking for the first goal and then running the clock down. It's a tough call, this really could go either way. In the end, two match-up regions stand out to me as the most vital.
The Portland central defense tandem will need seamless communication to deal with the lively, testing movement of Castellanos. The visitors will need to somehow find a way to get through Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes in midfield to find the hot set-up zones. Whichever side breaks through first could be on their way to the title.
PREDICTION: And because I think the Timbers will accomplish that, and because they finally get to play an MLS Cup at home, they're the pick. A 2-1 triumph sees Portland raise MLS Cup for a second time (and amp up the trash talk in their rivalry with Seattle).